El Ingenioso Hidalgo (1)
It is bizarre to me, and probably the fault of bad Lolita readings, how routinely people take Nabokov’s brand of art-for-art’s-sake criticism to exclude moral content. Every time the man opened his mouth, it was to judge the living and the dead. Nabokov’s criticism on Don Quijote finds any number of flaws in the novel; many are stylistic symptoms of the modern novel’s awkward adolescence, but what really gets his goat is the ethical lapse of gratuitous cruelty.
The author seems to plan it thus: Come with me, ungentle reader, who enjoys seeing a live dog inflated and kicked around like a soccer football; reader, who likes, of a Sunday morning, on his way to or from church, to poke his stick or direct his spittle at a poor rogue in the stocks; come, ungentle reader, with me and consider into what ingenious and cruel hands I shall place my ridiculously vulnerable hero. And I hope you will be amused at what I have to offer.
So we start in chapter 3 with the innkeeper who allows a haggard madman to stay at his inn just in order to laugh at him and have his guests laugh at him. We go on with a shriek of hilarity to the half-naked lad flogged with a belt by a hefty farmer (chapter 4). We are convulsed with laughter again in chapter 4 when a mule driver pounds the helpless Don Quixote like wheat in a mill... Some carriers in chapter 15 beat Rocinante so hard that he drops to the ground half-deadbut never mind, in another minute the puppet master will revive his squeaking dolls... By this time Don Quixote has lost half an earand nothing can be funnier than losing half an ear except of course losing three-quarters of an ear.
Humor just might emerge from a crowded field of contenders as the worst-theorized topic in existence; I’ve never read a remotely persuasive general account. But these particular incidents picked out by Nabokov deserve attentionespecially the ear. That bit unsettled me quite badly, I think because of the permanence of the maiming. Don Quijote’s and Sancho’s prior mishaps are a sort of Looney Tunes in prosethey can be beaten within an inch of their lives, and emerge intact a moment later for the next round of punishmentbut not even such a puppet master as Cervantes can make an ear grow back. Here’s the passage:
Puestas y levantadas en alto las cortadoras espadas de los dos valerosos y enojados combatientes, no parecía sino que estaban amenazando al cielo, a la tierra y al abismo: tal era el denuedo y continente que tenían. Y el primero que fue a descargar el golpe fue el colérico vizcaíno, el cual fue dado con tanta fuerza y tanta furia que, a no volvérsele la espada en el camino, aquel solo golpe fuera bastante para dar fin a su rigurosa contienda y a todas las aventuras de nuestro caballero; mas la buena suerte, que para mayores cosas le tenía guardado, torció la espada de su contrario, de modo que, aunque le acertó en el hombro izquierdo, no le hizo otro daño que desarmarle todo aquel lado, llevándole de camino gran parte de la celada, con la mitad de la oreja; que todo ello con espantosa ruina vino al suelo, dejándole muy maltrecho.
[Ormsby translates] With trenchant swords upraised and poised on high, it seemed as though the two valiant and wrathful combatants stood threatening heaven, and earth, and hell, with such resolution and determination did they bear themselves. The fiery Biscayan was the first to strike a blow, which was delivered with such force and fury that had not the sword turned in its course, that single stroke would have sufficed to put an end to the bitter struggle and to all the adventures of our knight; but that good fortune which reserved him for greater things, turned aside the sword of his adversary, so that although it smote him upon the left shoulder, it did him no more harm than to strip all that side of its armour, carrying away a great part of his helmet with half of his ear, all which with fearful ruin fell to the ground, leaving him in a sorry plight.
“No more harm?” Ironic of course, but in a very black way, and all the more shocking since it comes right after the verbal glee of the mock-epic style, which itself follows several pages of innocent metafictional fun with Cervantes’s fake Arab chronicler. The questions to ask are: a) did Cervantes expect us to laugh at this, and b) do we actually laugh at it? The answer to a) is probably yes. We’ll laugh at the most ghastly things if they’re presented cartoonishly enough, and in a society as brutal as seventeenth-century Spain (though it sure doesn’t win any prizes compared to dozens of others) much more is eligible for cartoon status. The second question is trickier. I found the passage rather hideous and upsetting, but read on: after the injury Don Quijote becomes enraged, trounces his adversary, and goes on to have a long talk with Sancho about his valor, the irrelevance of civil jurisprudence for knights-errant, and the recipe for his secret healing potion. Sancho gets very excited about this last, but Don Quijote ends the conversation:
-Calla, amigo -respondió don Quijote-, que mayores secretos pienso enseñarte y mayores mercedes hacerte; y, por agora, curémonos, que la oreja me duele más de lo que yo quisiera.
“Peace, friend,” answered Don Quixote; “greater secrets I mean to teach thee and greater favours to bestow upon thee; and for the present let us see to the dressing, for my ear pains me more than I could wish.”
This was where I laughed. It’s funnier in Spanish than in Ormsby’s translation, and much funnier in context; for several pages of high-flown discourse Quijote apparently forgets that he’s missing half an ear, then mentions the pain in the most formal and reserved way possible. (The imperfect subjunctive quisiera is the kind of word you use to order a meal in fancy restaurants.) Quijote’s insistence on maintaining his dignity is what makes the maiming thinkable, what brings it into the realm of things that we can actually laugh atand, in a weird way, is what humanizes it. I have a suspicion that this may not have been true for Cervantes and his audience; for them the injury was the main comedic attraction, and Quijote’s reaction just an afterthought. If this is true, it means that we’re reading the book rather differently than its original audience did. But this is not the sort of willfully blind reading that Nabokov attacks, where one simply ignores the cruelty in order to pronounce vague, Harold Bloom-esque platitudes about the book’s humanism or heroism. The cruelty, and our horrified reaction to the cruelty, is a necessary part of the affective experience. And the book’s ability to support both of these readings, and to be praised by readers from both camps, might tell us something about why it’s stuck around so long.
(more to come)